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Cerneka discusses Brazilian prisons

Annie Basinski | Thursday, October 9, 2003

Heidi Cerneka, a Maryknoll lay volunteer, spoke yesterday about her experiences of working with women living under inhuman conditions in Brazilian prisons.

The brown bag lunch discussion, titled, “A Life on the Margins: Faith and Solidarity with Brazil’s Poor,” was attended by approximately 30 students and faculty members and took place in Haggar Parlor Wednesday as part of Poverty and Hunger Awareness Week.

Cerneka, a 1987 graduate of Saint Mary’s, has worked in Brazil with Maryknoll for eight years and returned to campus to speak about her work with women on the streets and in prison to increase awareness of issues related to social injustice in Brazil. The Maryknoll Mission Association for Lay People is a Catholic organization committed to volunteer work for social justice in Africa, Asia and Latin America

Cerneka said her goals for missionary work change as new problems arise, but at this point in her life she hopes to spread the knowledge of the problems that exist for women living in Brazilian prisons. She also hopes to build a stronger network of missionary workers to help combat these problems.

In Brazil, few facilities are available to be used as women’s prisons, and the limited number that are accessible are 80 percent over capacity and poorly maintained.

One of Cerneka’s goals as a missionary worker is to “bring that question of women in prison to the forefront, so that the more people that know, the more we have a chance of changing things,” she said.

Cerneka, who speaks Portuguese, Spanish and English, works and talks with female prisoners who are not provided with adequate health care, who are tortured in prison, are living in overcrowded jails and are forced to wait years for their trials because of Brazil’s slow judicial system. She communicates with these women five to six times per week about ways in which they can work together to fight for better conditions in prisons.

“Because [women prisoners] are fewer and incite fewer rebellions, their cry for injustice – or rather, a more humane situation – is heard by practically no one,” Cerneka has written.

According to Cerneka, most of these women have committed petty crimes, such as trafficking small amounts of drugs. Other women were indirectly involved in crimes through their relationships with men who deal or traffic drugs.

Cerneka does not believe that incarceration is an effective correctional technique for women accused of these crimes. Instead, she believes imprisonment only contributes to the problems these women face; once released from prison, she said, they are unemployed.

Former prisoners have difficulty obtaining employment, especially because the unemployment rate in Brazil is 20 percent. Out of work, former prisoners often resort to crime so that they can survive, bringing them back to life in prison.

Instead of imprisonment, Cerneka proposes treatment and alternative sentencing, but she admits that there is no clear solution to the problem of ending crime.

Cerneka said people often asked her the question, “Why do you bother?” in regard to her efforts to fight poverty and other problems that seem to have no solutions.

Her answer, she said, is that, “[Problems of injustice are] not about to stop, so we’re not going to give up.”

Cerneka concluded her talk with a message of hope by reading an excerpt from a speech written by Czechoslovakian political hero Vaclav Havel: “Hope is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather, an ability to work for something that is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Kristen Carrigan, Saint Mary’s senior and member of Peacemakers, a club that aims to educate the College community about social injustices, described Cerneka’s discussion as an inspiration to all those seeking social justice.

Carrigan said that “even when an issue [about social injustice] is so overwhelming, when you step back and focus on the people involved – that’s where you find hope – because they don’t give up, so you can’t either.”